The last hit of Willie Mays’ career was a game-winning single in the 12th inning of a poorly played baseball game. A few minutes after his go-ahead hit off Oakland reliever Rollie Fingers in Game Two of the 1973 World Series, Mays circled the 270 remaining feet to score another run for the Mets, the final time he’d touch home plate in a big league ballgame.
In his brief appearances in the 1973 Fall Classic, the 42-year old Mays was clearly not the ballplayer he once was. The exception was his single off Fingers in the top of the 12th at Oakland Coliseum. Earlier, in the bottom of the ninth, Mays had misplayed a line drive off the bat of Deron Johnson, letting it fall in for a double that started a two-run Oakland rally to tie the game. Mays ended up flat on his face, an ignominious capper to his legendary career.
But Mays still had enough in his bat to send a Fingers’ fastball into center field to break a 6-6 tie. Fingers was 26 years old, still more known for his handlebar mustache than his pitching prowess. He was only three years into his role as the stopper out of the Oakland bullpen. He had just 74 saves to his credit, but he’d save two in the ’73 World Series, and pitch in an incredible six of the seven games. In 13 2/3 innings, Fingers allowed only one earned run in the series against the Mets. But in Game Two, thanks to Old Man Willie, he took the loss.
There was speculation entering the postseason that Mays might be playing the final games of his career. But there was little time to notice in the final month of the season, the Mets were embroiled in a thrilling division race with not one, not two, not three, but four teams. With three weeks left in the season, the Mets, Cardinals, Pirates, Expos, and Cubs were within 4 1/2 games of each other in the NL East. Led by their deep, talented pitching staff, the Mets churned their way to the finish line, winning 18 of 24 to capture the division crown.
Mays was a non-factor in the pennant race, sidelined with an injury that limited him to three games and six trips to the plate in September. But he was healthy enough to earn his way onto the postseason roster, chosen by manager Yogi Berra, old enough to recall the heydays of the Say Hey Kid.
But Willie looked all of 42 in the first two games of the Series. He did not start Game Two, but entered in the eighth inning as a defensive replacement in his familiar center field. That’s when he misplayed a pair of balls in the ninth, neither going for an error, but those who saw it were embarrassed for the legendary ballplayer.
After the game, after his game-winning hit, after an unattractive World Series contest that saw 27 men left on base, 25 strikeouts, and six errors over 12 innings of “here you have it, no you take it” baseball, Mays ended the suspense. He announced he wouldn’t return in 1974. The World Series would be the final chapter of his career.